Gloria Monday: News from nowhere

Has-beens, wannabes and lechers wrestle with PowerPoint, bad English and alcohol in a deadly dull German townlet: yes, it’s academic conference season again

April 16, 2008

I’ve been watching daytime TV lately, smoking too much and sitting around eating Pringles. It’s a form of therapy after returning home from yet another conference. Spring is always a time when battalions of academics go on the road with their papers in their bags. The fantasists among them, of whom there are many, set out in the hope that maybe this time they’ll be a big hit with their peers. Provided, of course, that they actually get there intact and that the PowerPoint works. I bet there was a whole subculture of despairing academics in Terminal 5 over Easter praying that their missing bags might turn up in time for them to make some sort of impact.

I’ve always hated conferences, but you have to go to the damned things. It’s how you get noticed when you’re climbing the career ladder, and how you make sure you’re not forgotten when you’ve reached the top and are in danger of becoming ancient history. The formula for conferences hasn’t changed in my lifetime: the lesser mortals get shorter slots and the big names, most of whom ran out of original ideas years ago and have nothing left to say (provided, of course, they ever did have!), get the longer slots and are classified differently as “keynote speakers”. I was a keynote this time, which I felt flattered by when invited, but the enthusiasm faded when I saw who else was on the programme – a motley crew of has-beens and wannabes, duller than a wet weekend in West Hartlepool. (Where I’ve never been, but it doesn’t strike me as the fanciest place in the world to visit.)

The place where the conference was held wasn’t much to write home about either, a deadly dull German townlet that had been rebuilt in too much of a hurry after the war. We were all put up in a soulless modern hotel next to the station and bussed out of town each morning to another concrete block. There were rounds of pompous introductions, then mind-numbing papers, some of which were given in unintelligible English. Anyone who says English is the new lingua franca should sit through a dozen or so papers on medieval and Renaissance history given by people who obviously got Ds in their written English tests and failed their orals outright.

As for the discussion sessions, characterised by the sheer rudeness of some and the abysmal ignorance of others, you’d be better off watching repeats of Jerry Springer. Although occasionally, just occasionally, there are some bright young sparks who are clearly thinking brilliantly, and you just hope they will make it through the slough of mediocrity without being pushed back by the jealousy of their superiors.

To make a conference bearable you have to treat it like an anthropological field trip. In the evenings, all kinds of species gather round the waterholes, some slavering a bit and others edging round nervously. A few drinks and the inhibitions loosen, and then you get the salacious gossip, the titillating bits of news about people you’ve loathed for years, and as the night wears on you can watch the preliminaries of the animal mating routines, although with all the talk of sexual harassment the gropers are less overtly in evidence nowadays. When I was younger, I used to get propositioned from time to time, usually by ageing medievalists with receding hairlines and paunches. The most revolting was an internationally famous bloke with a wall-eye and halitosis, but what amazed me was that at every conference we both attended he actually managed to pull someone. Once a friend of mine succumbed, so of course I had to ask her what he was like. Seems he rolled over afterwards and asked her how she felt now she’d had sex with a genius. I always did think he wrote in clichés.

Nobody, thankfully, even gave me the eye me this time, and the food was actually quite decent. Being at a conference is not unlike being in hospital – you are quickly institutionalised and so eat round the clock to stave off the boredom. Though conference food has improved hugely since David Lodge wrote his famous novel about the international conference circuit. Well, he called it a novel, but his experiences seem to tally quite bit with mine, so we should probably see it as a piece of social history.

But all the same, the effort you make to go to one of these shindigs is really not worth the pain. You fly on the cheapest airline you can find, wait for hours at overcrowded airports, meet people you don’t give a toss about, listen to drivel, stay up far too late and overindulge in institutional food. Which is why after one of these so-called cutting-edge events that bring together the Great Nonentities of Academe, I find I need a good dose of reality TV to aid recovery.

Gloria Monday is a mid-career historian employed in one of the many universities with aspirations to international greatness.

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